Danish Farooq is quickly becoming a revelation in Kashmir. The 22-year-old striker symbolises a fairy-tale rise by Real Kashmir, the first club from the region to make it to the I-League.

With the help of Scottish coach David Robertson, the Snow Leopards have emerged as serious title contenders in their debut I-League season and on Wednesday, beat Gokulam Kerala 1-0 to go top of the table temporarily. Four matches remain for Real Kashmir as they try to secure what would be a momentous triumph on debut.

Farooq has defied stone-pelting protesters and pellets shot by security forces to make it to training. “I have struggled a lot. But whatever the situation, I try not to miss practice,” said Farooq, whose father was also a professional footballer, playing for Mohammedan Sporting, one of the three ‘Kolkata giants’ along with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.

“Playing in the I-League is a dream come true and I am living that dream every day,” says Farooq.

Not all in the team are happy with the perception of the region and its residents outside of the state.

“If you are a Kashmiri, even if you are a sportsperson, you are labelled a terrorist,” said midfielder Khalid Qayoom.

He added, “We want to change that perception. Kashmiris are not terrorists, it is just a label thrust on us.”

But there were stark reminders of the troubles outside the stadium – which is covered with snow for much of the football season – after his team’s 1-0 home win over Chennai City last week. To win the title though, the Snow Leopards will have to see off the challenge of Chennai City, who regained top spot after a victory over the Indian Arrows.

Armed police and armoured vehicles patrolled the perimeter as 15,000 rapturous fans cheered the hometown heroes.

‘A joke’

Real Kashmir have come a long way since newspaper editor Shamim Meraj and businessman Sandeep Chattoo raised funds to buy 500 footballs to keep local youths occupied after deadly floods in 2014.

The club took formal shape in March 2016, as Chattoo said Real Kashmir started as “a joke”. They qualified to the top division after a 3-2 win over Hindustan FC in the second division.

“We just threw out the idea and went step-by-step. I had no idea how far it would go,” Chattoo said.

The pair brought on as coach Robertson, a former Aberdeen and Rangers defender, while Adidas agreed to a kit sponsorship – the only Indian team to get the sportswear giant’s money.

Robertson declined coaching offers from clubs in China and Uganda to take charge at the Snow Leopards but had never visited India before and considered abandoning the club after just two days in Kashmir, after a power and internet outage cut him off from family back home.

“I was ready to go. But then the club owner persuaded me to stay, and now I am so glad that he did that,” Robertson said.

“Overall for me the pleasing thing is that the success of the team has put Kashmir on the football map.”

The Real Kashmir head coach even convinced his son Mason to quit a full-time contract with Scottish side Peterhead to join the team as a midfielder.

Local under-15 coach Owais Farooq said Real Kashmir’s sudden triumphs had brought about a surge of interest in the sport among Kashmir’s youngsters.

“I receive so many calls every day from parents who want to enrol their children in training programmes but we don’t have enough grounds to train,” he said.

Turf war

The sport was popular in Kashmir before an armed rebellion against Indian rule erupted in the 1990s, after which no tournament was held for almost two decades.

But Real Kashmir have given locals a fresh taste for football success.

“You can see the love that the people have given us,” said club co-owner Meraj. “That’s the biggest takeaway for us.”

Thirty-five-year-old hotel worker Parvaiz Ahmad Reshi said he only started watching football on TV because of the club.

“I have been hooked on it ever since,” he said. “When I watch the game I forget my troubles. It’s so good to have something apart from violence and killings to talk about.”

(Feature story originally published by news agency AFP)